I first saw The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn play back in May at World Cafe Live, where he performed a solo set as part of 2022’s NON-COMMvention. I was blown away by his ability to capture a room, spinning intricate tales from stage and engaging an audience in a way few could, but if a Craig Finn solo show reminded me a bit of a stage play, intimate and sparse, then the set he played with his full band at Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia on Saturday night was a musical; grand, impassioned, and massive. Any band who arrives on a Philly stage to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)” a week before the Superbowl knows exactly how to give an audience precisely what they want and Finn and company did just that, giving the hundreds that packed into Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia a show they won’t soon forget.
The long night of music got started when local folk-rockers Friendship took the stage as the show’s lone opening act. It’s here I must give the audience credit in the addition paid to the night’s excellent performers. Saturday was the kind of night where you might reasonably expect a low turnout for an opener. Temperatures dipping into the single digits does not exactly inspire people to punctually leave their homes, especially for a band they may not know all that well. I’m happy to report that was not the case last night, as nearly the entire audience came flooding up to the stage to catch Friendship perform a set of songs that came primarily from their 2022 record Love The Stranger (a record we loved here at XPN). Perhaps it due to their shared ability as excellent lyricists, but if my reading of the room is correct, I believe songwriter Dan Wriggins and his band won more than a couple converts as their set progressed, providing an alt-country appetizer to The Hold Steady’s bar room shenanigans.
Which brings us the main attraction, a band returning to Philly for the first time in quite a while. The Hold Steady are a band celebrating 20 years together, an anniversary that inspired the mini-tour they’ve deemed their “East Coast Weekend.” The tour got started in Baltimore on Thursday before heading to Washington D.C. and, of course, Philly. I can’t say for certain, having not been to the first two stops of the tour, but I cannot imagine an audience more fully invested in the energy The Hold Steady were bringing on stage. It may seem an obvious statement, but Saturday night’s sold-out show was absolutely packed with superfans, these were not casual observers. From the front of the stage to the far-reaches of the bar that lines the back wall, nearly every song inspired rabid sing-a-longs, pumping fists, and closed-eyed reverie. And, given what was happening on stage, it wasn’t hard to see why.
While The Hold Steady are very much an active band with a new album — The Price Of Progress, coming in March — this weekend was more of a retrospective than your typical night of music. Finn and company played songs from all over their substantial catalog, from Boys and Girls in America’s “Stuck Between Stations” to Separation Sunday’s “Stevie Nix” to Stay Positive’s “Sequestered In Memphis.” It was the kind of exhaustive set that gives nearly every audience member a chance to hear their favorite Hold Steady song, an opportunity that led to more than a few positively giddy moments of exaltation from those pressing close to the stage. And Finn, for his part, seemed to love every minute of it, taking each chance he could to engage in a sing-along with the audience, bust out a few goofy dance moves, and up the energy to new heights.
You got the distinct feeling that for many of the people at Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia on Saturday night, this was not their first Hold Steady show, but you also got the feeling it was their favorite one yet.